Beyond theories of change?

2 min readOct 9, 2021


Policymakers love a framework. At its best, it provides helpful prompts to work out a problem in a way that codifies lessons learned by others. At worst though, it creates the illusion of being able to structure reality the way that policymakers want.

Policymakers can suffer from biases as much as any other profession. Frameworks can also feel impersonal to residents and disconnect from their own day to day lives.

Culture over theory

Ultimately, theories of change often focus on trying to change other people, be it a council trying to change behaviours of organisations it commissions or charities of people who use their services. They focus excessively on the importance of eveloping their theory of change as the system leader and focused on trying to fix the root causes, rather than acknowledging the messiness of systems change and people’s everyday lives.

It can be tempting to try and tackle everything, or at least make sense of each different dependency to feel confident in fully understanding the context. But you can never know a context that ultimately changes. Equally, you don’t want to know much more than others, otherwise, they won’t be able to relate to what you’re saying and you lose momentum if you don’t act on a situation when people are starting to pull together around common causes. You need to think about what you want to focus on and what points of leverage you want to use and what distinctive contribution you or your organisation can make.

Creating a culture of working with residents and partners, testing things out together, learning together and shifting together is more important than a single theory of change. Better to:

  • Create a collective sense of purpose over a theory
  • Distribute power rather than put your organisation at the centre
  • Be comfortable with uncertainty and be willing to experiment
  • Be happy with being challenged and debate
  • Start with people’s lived experience
  • Question your own assumptions as well as others




Head of Policy Design, Scrutiny & Partnerships @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese